A blog about photography, and about following Medway RFC, and mixing the two. All views are mine.
When asked to take a group picture of between 300 and 500 people, the first thing to do is to drop and pray the numbers are at the lower end of the estimate when it comes to the actual day.
The rugby club asked if I could do such a thing so, after a slight hesitation and the crossing of fingers behind my back, I said yes. Actually, first I asked if they had considered getting someone with one of those panoramic cameras used in old school photographs, but we couldn’t find one locally. In retrospect I think it would have been far too formal anyway, and it would have been impossible to organise everyone without the old-school threat of corporal punishment in any case.
So having said yes, the planning could start. It seemed to me that the only way we would be able to see everyone’s face in such a picture was to photograph them from an elevated position. Handily, Medway Rugby Club has a viewing platform outside the clubhouse which is about 15 feet above the pitch. With everyone on the pitch they would be able to look up into the camera.
Two weeks before, and planning for the worst case scenario of all members, players, parents and Uncle Tom Cobley turning up on the designated day, I stood up on the platform while my son Tom gradually moved from the far side of the pitch to the near side, artlessly getting in the way of the First XV pre-match warm-up. We needed to see how visible someone at the far side would be at a focal length of around 40mm. The answer: not very, but we didn’t have much choice.
The other purpose of the test was to ensure that our hyperfocal distance calculator was coming up with the right answer, and that we were getting depth of field from 10 feet to infinity at f/11. On our test day we had hazy sunshine, and I was getting 1/125 of a second at f/11 and ISO 100. If the actual conditions turned out to be dull, we’d have to increase ISO, but with the 5D2 I don’t worry about that till it goes past 800 anyway.
As it happened, the day was bright and sunny and the final exposure was 1/200 at f/11, ISO 100, with the camera on a tripod and the shutter on a cable release.
However, before that we had to organise everyone. Tom and Gerald (the club’s groundsman) laid out cones on the pitch that roughly mirrored my lens’ field of view (I had decided to widen the shot to 32mm focal length), starting with a narrow front and widening as they went back across the pitch. The cones, we hoped somewhat forlornly, would keep people from spilling out of the sides of the picture, and give me space at the edges for cropping to the most appropriate size. It didn't entirely work, but they did keep some control of the mass of humanity out front.
I had drawn a schematic, which showed where people should sit and stand in the picture, starting with the youngsters sitting in front, and going back through youth players, to the First XV, other senior players and the club executive, and then everyone else. There were plenty of helpers to get people into position, and Mark Marriott, the club vice-chairman, helped by bawling orders from the balcony straight into my eardrum. My balance hasn’t been the same since.
We estimate about 350 people are in the photograph. It took only 15 minutes to get everyone out of the bar, or off the training paddock, and into position for the shot. This was pleasing, since I had been earnestly advised by a certain coach-type person not to let it go past 1 o’clock since he “had a f***ing rugby match to f***ing prepare for f***’s sake” or something similar.
Post-processing amounted to cloning out the cones, and a cyclist on the horizon, and in the end I cropped the picture to a 4x3 aspect ratio and printed it at 40” x 30” with a semi-transparent caption block over the top. Everyone is visible and recognisable from front to back, and the finished thing, framed, should appear in the clubhouse shortly.
I’d been to Old Dunstonian’s only once before Saturday, but it feels an unlucky place to me. That was six years ago and my son Tom was playing for Medway RFC’s under-fourteens, who were then one of the top three sides in Kent at that age group.
Old Dunstonian’s had only one youth side, which had defected en masse from the county’s top side Blackheath, and they beat us “in controversial circumstances” as they say in Euphemismia.
So I wasn’t looking forward to our second trip to Old Dunstonian. It’s a barely accessible club hidden in the Beckenham suburbs that are not only leafy but rich. The club is at the end of St Dunstan’s Lane, a long eight-feet wide lane bounded by seven-feet high walls and fences protecting lush residences either side, and with no passing places. We arrived just as a cavalcade of big black 4x4s was leaving and after three attempts at getting in and having to reverse back into the main road, we gave up in a fusillade of profanity, parked in a side street and walked.
Considering the high density of off-road monster trucks that had issued from the club’s mouth, I put on my big fat walking boots expecting a sweaty trek over hill, dale, swamp and mango grove, but the walk turned out to be pure tarmac and flatter than Chelsea. Odd, that.
I sat comfortably in the clubhouse with the friendly bar staff tending my every need while the lads I’d come to watch and photograph, the Medway senior second team or “Extra First XV” as they are called, ran around on the pitch trying to warm up in searing five degree heat and refreshing drizzle. Kick-off was at 2:30, so at at 2:29:45 I rose reluctantly, picked up my heavy backpack of gear (which I would normally leave in the car - damn that narrow lane) and walked over to the gorgeously lush pitch.
The weather had decided that a steady downpour carried on a chilly breeze would be the most dispiriting conditions it could manage for watching rugby, so I took out my secondhand 1D3 with the 100-400mm lens attached and once again hoped the weather-sealing was all that was claimed, while also sticking the whole rig inside my fleece whenever there was a break in play. Tom remarked later that it was quite cool to watch me “draw my gun from under my jacket and shoot” in one smooth movement, like James Bond firing a concealed blowpipe missile launcher. Bear in mind that a 1D3 carrying that lens is nearly two feet long with a four-inch diameter. Personally I think he was taking the mick, and in any case all it resulted in was a high proportion of blurred images, which is definitely not cool.
The camera was all set up and ready to go before I left home of course, so I switched on, enjoying the instant start up, and blimey here was Tom right in front of me scoring his first try for ages and I’m raising the viewfinder to my eye to capture the glory when I discover there’s no card in the camera. I confessed immediately to Tom that I missed his try and suffered his curses as good-naturedly as ever.
Medway scored again soon after but then decided the job was done after ten minutes and went to sleep. Then, for a dad, came one of those unpleasant experiences when your son goes down and stays down, and the referee has a glance and takes the unusual step of stopping the game for the injury rather than waiting for a break in play, and you’re looking at the still, prone figure through your long lens for signs of life. But on this occasion no-one in the small crowd gathered round him seems too alarmed, and no-one is on the phone, so probably an ambulance isn’t needed, and eventually he sits up and is then carried off by unsympathetic teammates grinning at the misfortunes of others, as they do. Quite right too.
Coming off the wing on the crash ball, Tom was hit by two players simultaneously, one high and one low, and when they all came to earth someone’s knee speared into Tom’s lower thigh just above the right knee with all his weight behind it. We watched interestedly as his leg swelled to twice it’s normal width, then helped him to the changing room, hoping he’d still be able to get his trousers on, and reflecting that had it been three inches lower it might well have shattered his knee. As it was he was walking about 15 minutes later, albeit with a heavy limp intended to attract some kind of sympathy and failing completely.
When I got back Medway were down by 10 or 12 and looking ragged. Things worsened in the second half as Old Dunstonian’s lead steadily extended until a late rally by Medway put some respectability back on the scoreline. Dave Gwilliam had come off the bench and added some purpose and penetration to the back line, scoring a try that was remarkable in its way, and a testament to all those good things that keep people watching and playing sport: determination, athleticism, strength of mind and body, never say die spirit etc etc. You see him here two metres short of the tryline just after crashing into the opposition line, lifted into the air by two defenders and with the way blocked by a third covering defender and you have to ask how, a second or two later, he is over the line and scoring the try. It’s kind of magical, in its way.
© Alan Bourne Photography